If you’d asked me to predict the concept of Jerry Janda’s directorial debut, I’d never have guessed it would be a period piece set in feudal Japan. I might’ve predicted some supernatural tinges, and definitely some talky scenes. “Kaishakunin” involves all of these, in what amounts to a nice first film. It suffers from one hammy performance and some technical issues, but it’s an enjoyable first effort from a filmmaker who obviously loves making and writing film.
“Kaishakunin” is the tale of a roaming samurai who stops at the humble abode of an old White man. The samurai demands tea and hospitality, and as he drinks the two being a tense discussion that touches on local myth, a dead samurai master and the ghost that’s said to haunt the north woods. Though the old man has lived there for many years, he’s never actually seen the ghost or ventured into the haunted woodlands, but the legends are powerful enough that he believes them. The samurai is skeptical, and reveals later on that he’s got a relationship with the legend himself. As the discussion reaches a crescendo, a third character reveals himself right before the credits roll, suggesting there is a battle to come.
“Kaishakunin” is a strong debut, and it’s fun, but it’s not without its issues, which begin with the two leads. As the Old Man, Jeff Swisher goes all wild eyed and loud, where a little restraint probably gone a long way. His scenery chewing seems even more out of place when most of his scenes are chatty in the vein of “My Dinner with Samurai.” As the Samurai, Michael D. Bird affects an Asian accent that makes him often hard to understand. His voice frequently comes across garbled, and I had to watch a second time, listening more intently, to understand what exactly what he’s saying. This isn’t just on Bird, though. The sound design is less than ideal, which is not abnormal for a low budget short, but certainly doesn’t help matters. For instance, it’s supposed to be raining for most of the short, but you’d never know it as the pitter patter isn’t always audible. With some higher end sound design and a little less histrionics from Swisher, “Kaishakunin” would have been amazing.
Even with those limitations, it’s still a lot of fun. I wasn’t sure if I should trust the Old Man, though he’s convinced of his version of things. The Samurai is more than a bit of a dick to him, which creates a nice, tense dynamic between the two. And once the discussion turns to beheaded samurais and haunted forests, with some enjoyable flashback action, business really picks up. Janda’s influences are clear, both as writer and director, and he crafts a solid story that has me believing this takes place in feudal Japan. He builds the tension as the piece progresses, which he symbolizes adeptly with the building of the driving storm. And the suggestions of a samurai ghost fall nicely into place with my dark heart’s love of supernatural horror.
That the supernatural only rears its head right before the credits leaves me wanting more. This seems like a great first act to a feature length film, with an awesome sword fight between a dead samurai master and a scorned living samurai to come in the next act. I’d buy that flick. I’ve spoken with Jerry about this, and he feels it’s complete as is. Which leads to the whole “once the director releases a film, it belongs to its audience” argument. I can see Jerry’s point-of-view on this, as he’s expended his tale and has left any larger battles to the audience’s imagination. But man, does my imagination take it to all sorts of interesting places. If Jerry ever wants to write “Kaishakunin, Chapter 2,” I’d offer to co-write it for him.
For a 12-minute film, the screener for “Kaishakunin” comes with a sizeable portion of extras. Make sure to check out “Painkiller,” written by Janda, directed by Hell of Famer Jeremiah Kipp and starring the ultra-talented Kelly Rae LeGault. It’s a dark tale about parasites, underground experimentation, sadism and masochism. Every masochist needs a sadist, and I need to write a full review for “Painkiller,” as I only devoted a paragraph to it in my original piece. Its inclusion is the gem of the special features. It’s a great short, also on a personal level for me, as reviewing it is how I first made contact with Jerry.
There’s another short, “Spammer,” co-directed by “Kaishakunin’s” cinematographer, John Iwasz. Jerry’s love of Lovecraft justifies its inclusion, but its humor falls flat for me.
There are a color version of the trailer and a black-and-white, for comparison (the film itself is in black-and-white, conjuring Kurasawa’s tales of roaming samurai); I vastly prefer the black-and-white, as it adds atmosphere to the tale. Jerry does a commentary track for “Kaishakunin;” I’ve always loved these tracks on DVDs, and Janda gives some interesting insight into both the storytelling elements and the filming. Jerry’s an interesting guy, so this track is as well. Iwasz also does a track, which leans more toward the tech end of production. I’m not a techie, but if you are, you’ll enjoy.
If you love period pieces, roaming samurai and haunted forests, you’ll enjoy “Kaishakunin.” It’s got its issues, but it’s solid entertainment, and every second of it shows just how much Jerry Janda love writing and making film. Jerry keeps threatening to retire from indie film. With “Kaishakunin” as his calling card, that would be a sin if his directorial debut were also his swan song.